1999 was going to be a landmark year. Lucas was going to finally return to directing with a series of Star Wars prequels (we all know how badly that turned out), then The Matrix was going to change the face of sci-fi for ever – well, it did briefly, but then squandered it all with sequels that muddied the waters (although the second one still has so many possibilities that the third one then misses), and no one suspected that a mid-scale release from a studio that was trying its upmost not to support it would end up being the most influential film that year. A scorching funny black comedy (and it clearly is a very black comedy), Fight Club arrived on a tide of comments about everything from violence in movies to whether it was justification for Nazism (yes, there is a fascist element to it, but one that is clearly rejected by the Narrator come the end). Alexander Walker even went as far to declaim the film as “An inadmissible assault on personal decency” and “The movie is not only anti-capitalist but anti-society and, indeed, anti-God”, one wonders what the hell he would have made of The Human Centipede. Fight Club makes the list on numerous counts; it remains endlessly watchable, purely cinematic and has influenced probably more attempted imitations than any other failed large scale release than any film since.
The film is interesting in that it’s one of those rare instances where the film is genuinely better than the source, ditching the oddities of the book (the strange relationship with his boss, the more ambiguous ending that answers nothing) and strengthening the rest. Fincher ramped up the unreliable narrator element, surprisingly tightening the overall structure in the process until all that left was a flash, funny film that just happened to contain scenes of graphic violence. It’s a film that rewards multiple viewings, not only to show how well constructed the underlying narrative is (all taken from the book) and that yes, it does all sit together, but how well shot it is in putting the answer in plain sight from the very start of the film. Whilst The Sixth Sense and the like pulled the rug out from under us with parlour tricks, Fight Club never hides anything – you just don’t think of the solution. The near miracle is that on your fourth or fifth viewing you’re still deconstructing it. None of it bears scrutiny as any form of commentary on life, but the absurdist comedy is heightened as a result.
Of course it helps that it’s dragged along by a quartet of wonderful performances. Brad Pitt – up until then nearly always the pretty man of Hollywood played it to the hilt as the sort of deranged freak that all of us have encountered (or occasionally been) at some point in our life. He even goes as far as to deconstruct his own image, becoming a more extreme version of himself as the film progresses, slowly losing the boyish shine and becoming more angular, ugly – the Nazi love child version of himself. Norton plays the opposite, at first he’s our window into the world, slowly wasting away as the narrative takes over but remains hypnotic throughout. They’re a deranged duo, half Withnail & I, half Calvin & Hobbes, although with neither pairings softer edges. Helena Bonham Carter is probably the sanest character in the film, which given her initial involvement (and clear mental health issues) in the story puts everyone else into context, but crucially she softens some of the aspects that could have been overwhelming whilst demolishing the myth of the attractive kooky girl who’s quite plainly nuts. Lastly, Meat Loaf roots brings the whole film down to Earth with probably the most sympathetic turn in the film, wildly out of his depth and being dragged along (but unable to say no) he’s the true face of what would happen to most of us if we became involved in this sort of thing.
The whole film is clearly Fincher’s show. After the stylistically interesting, but non experimental Seven this felt closer to his first film with its strange angles, bleak colour schemes and jarring aural assaults (a superb off-kilter soundtrack from The Dust Brothers), taking in subliminal images, fake screen indicators and movie trickery. It even explored similar themes to his previous film – The Game – although far more successfully and well rounded. It raised the benchmark on movie-CGI, removing it from the fantastic to the dealing with the mundane on a slow motion trip through the IKEA catalogue. For an ugly film it’s often strikingly beautifully shot.
Where it still succeeds is that it grips from the very first moment through to the (vastly improved) end, existing within its own unassailable logic bubble where all of this seems reasonable. Its pitch black funny, you’re often laughing because it’s so wrong rather that it’s conventional funny, often the laughter is the nervous sort that comes when someone tells a joke a little too close to the bone. Fight Club realises its offensive (indeed it sets out to offend), but doesn’t push the boundaries of what is respectable or acceptable, just of what is expected. Viewed today even the violence seems to have been filtered, often overstated, cartoon like in its depiction rather than wantonly cruel. Fight Club has adapted to the times, ironically for something we’re not supposed to talk about, we still can’t stop doing.
The interesting thing is what would be made of it today? At the time much of the focus was on the violent content, with the anti-capitalism message being largely overlooked in favour of the commentary on the role of men in society – today there’s the sense that the focus would switch, the tone lighten (but also become less glib) in favour of a tirade against the banks & the rich. Fight Club was (for better or worse) not the last great film of the nineties, but the first great one of the millennium. It captured the mood of what was to come; its message became lost amongst a generation that failed to understand that it wasn’t promoting self-destruction & violence as a way forward, but growing up.